Wednesday, December 29, 2010
Emily Carr on Trees: essay, part 1
Emily Carr's Trees
Emily Carr experienced an ecstatic identification with the spirit of nature, particularly as she found it in British Columbia. There the cool, gray climate, the proximity of water and most particularly the presence of trees offered her endless opportunity for artistic reflection and growth.
To speak of Emily Carr's trees is to seize on the central subject of her work, both as metaphor and form. Like a great axis mundi, the tree centers and grounds most of her paintings. And as a mythico-ritual subject in Carr's work, the tree corresponds in importance to the centerpost often present in her paintings of the homes of native peoples in the Pacific Northwest.
In 1935 Carr spoke before a literary society in Victoria about her art, a talk later published as "The Something Plus in a Work of Art." That "something," Carr explained, was what characterized great works of art - a kind of spiritual connection between the artist and an ideal. It was a connection that echoed Plato as well as the transcendentalists, whom she quoted. But it was more. Carr also brought the Japanese concept of Sei Do into her definition: "the transfusion into the work of the felt nature of the thing to be painted." Like Georgia O'Keeffe, Carr was receptive to principles and practices of Asian art. Carr's influences were received via other artists, particularly Mark Tobey, whose advice and teaching she had sought a few years earlier.
The felt nature of the thing - its essence, its distinguishing core. For a painter whose chief subject was trees, Sei Do was treeness, and the expression of it her life's work. Carr had begun to discover its power very early in her career, when she animated trees in a 1905 political cartoon for a Victoria weekly periodical. Captioned "The Inartistic Alderman and the Realistic Nightmare," the cartoon was accompanied by the following poem:
"Ye ghosts of all the dear old trees, The oak, the elm, the ash, Nightly those gentlemen go tease, Who hew you down like trash."
Carr, it seems, had already seen the dangers posed by unrestrained tree cutting, a cause she would champion all her life. Trees, she suggests, possess a life of their own and should not be wantonly felled. It was an idea that was rarely popular in British Columbia, where the logging industry yearly consumed ever more of the virgin forests. Cartooning could not hold Carr's interest for long; she was after something more deeply expressive in the forest. In 1934 she chastised herself for flagging in her work: "I am hedging, not facing the problem before me how to express the forest - pretending I must do this and that first ... but the other should come first; it's my job."
By that time Carr had spent years investigating the forest, absorbing all she could of tree existence. Her journals are full of her communion with trees, her admiration of them, and, ultimately, her close identification with them. Because Carr wrote so much about her life and her artistic struggle - unlike O'Keeffe - we can more readily see how she projected her feelings onto trees. Typical are her remarks "Trees are so much more sensible than people, steadier and more enduring" and "I ought to stick to nature because I love trees better than people." The latter statement echoes that of O'Keeffe to her friend Hartley.
In their paintings of trees both Carr and O'Keeffe made transcriptions from visual experience, and each artist searched out rhythmic patterning and movement within arboreal structure, although there is no evidence that either painter knew the other's work before 1930. Both often cropped trees, and both made much of the negative spaces between branches. Carr's work in the 1920S usually stayed closer to gritty, palpable realism, while O'Keeffe's toyed with space and pressed toward decorative abstraction. The differences are significant.
In 1930 Carr's and O'Keeffe's interest in trees intersected. That spring Carr visited New York, where, in the company of Arthur Lismer, an acquaintance who was a member of the Group of Seven, she sought out new painting. At An American Place a number of O'Keeffe's paintings were still on exhibit from her annual show. Most were based on her previous summer's visit to Taos, including The Lawrence Tree. Carr and O'Keeffe apparently discussed the painting at some length, during which O'Keeffe related the work's connection both to her experience at the Lawrence cabin and to Lawrence's passage about the great pine in St Mawr. Apparently these ideas lingered in Carr's mind, for later that year she copied Lawrence's description into her journal, though with a qualifying comment: "It's clever, but it's not my sentiments nor my idea of pines, not our north ones anyhow. I wish I could express what I feel about ours, but so far it's only a feel and I have not put it into words."
end of part 1
extracted from Art History Archive. Please click here to see the article in its original online context.
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